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Protecting Free-Flowing Rivers: A Pathway to Peace

Protecting rivers reduces conflict, empowers communities, and conserves biodiversity.

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Our idea:  To foster peace and protect the planet by scaling up permanent protection for rivers that are transboundary or in conflict or post-conflict zones, with a focus on key waterways that travel through China, Myanmar, Russia, Bhutan, India, Colombia, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

Background:  Rivers are essential to all life on the planet. Free-flowing rivers work like arteries, providing the world’s ecosystems with critical freshwater resources, feeding in-stream environments and biota, recharging fertility in floodplains and aquifers and providing nutrients to delta, estuarine and near shore reefs. They sustain extensive fisheries globally, where freshwater fisheries are estimated to feed up to 550 million people, while river floodplains feed hundreds of millions more.  Rivers are a source of magnificent biodiversity, and a refuge for endangered species. 

Healthy rivers and watersheds play an essential role in climate change mitigation and adaptation; they absorb atmospheric carbon in their sediments and act as natural buffers to balance increasingly serious floods and droughts. But as anthropogenic impacts affect our climate the patterns of snowmelt, monsoon and seasonal rains are changing, and this puts real pressure on our rivers and the people who rely on their flows and ecosystem services. 

In 2015, the World Economic Forum listed global water crises as “the biggest threat facing the planet over the next decade.” We cannot survive without healthy rivers, yet they are one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. Freshwater resources have been recognised in a number of the Sustainable Development Goals, where the interconnected nature of our forests, rivers, deltas and ocean ecosystems is captured in ambitious targets.

The threat to rivers has never been greater. The majority of the world’s great rivers have been dammed, diverted and polluted. There are over 3700 hydropower projects planned or under construction on the world’s rivers. Large, destructive dam projects can permanently alter an entire watershed, displacing tens of thousands of people from their lands, decimating fisheries and biodiversity, starving cropland and deltas of life-giving sediment, and emitting methane - one of the more damaging greenhouse gases. Water security is recognized as a global priority, with tensions around transboundary management of water a reality within and between states.

Disputes over rivers and freshwater resources have also caused conflict.  In 1968, armed conflict erupted between China and the Soviet Union along the Amur River, in part due to disputes over fisheries.  In 1965, Syria's attempts to divert some of the Jordan River's headwaters contributed to the Six-Day War. And even where open conflict is not the direct outcome - across our continents, tensions between riparian states abound, and river exploitation projects abound in areas of weak governance or conflict/ post-conflict settings.

Many of our focus rivers are transboundary – running through and shared by multiple countries. Freshwater – from rivers and groundwater - has fed a massive expansion of agriculture throughout the world’s fertile basins.  This in turn has allowed populations to boom, while urban centers and industrial activities have expanded – requiring more and more water. Rivers have been central to growth – and dams have been a key part of this expansion. But damming rivers has a huge cost as well – extracting water away from rivers has fed tensions between states, and in the last century damming rivers for power production has become a lucrative option for driving energy systems and industrial development. When dams are built and water is taken for energy this puts pressure on the other users and uses of water. At times this pressure erupts in open conflict, but more often is experienced as a geopolitical break-down between states or a fight between users and sectors - for example allocating water for energy production versus water for natural systems and ecosystem sustainability; or water for potable urban use in one mega-city versus water for large-scale irrigation in a downstream delta. When one sector or one State has unlimited control and power, the ecosystems and the people of the river basin are the first to lose.

In March 2017, leading river conservationists from around the world gathered in the Republic of Georgia at an event co-organised by International Rivers, to share experiences and lessons in protecting rivers from threats such as hydropower development and watershed exploitation. We saw great interest and efforts to create permanent protection for free-flowing rivers.  We also saw that intense work to create protections was occurring in transboundary rivers; and even in basins with ongoing conflict or recent post-conflict tensions.  Participants in the conference agreed to pursue opportunities to further share experience and advance a common concept of permanent river protection.

Our project’s underlying theory of change is that permanent legal protections for river ecosystems are necessary to ensure the long-term health and viability of rivers and communities that depend upon them. We know that collaborations between communities can help protect the river and its resources for future generations, and that cooperation between States is important, but we know that changing politics often undermine community efforts at protection.  By scaling up permanent protection, we mean legally protecting these rivers from further impoundments or diversions, while upholding traditional river uses and community access to freshwater. 

Our initial focus is to protect key rivers that travel through China, Myanmar, Russia, Bhutan, India, Colombia, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.  Each focus river is either transboundary or in a conflict or post-conflict zone, or both.  In each focus river basin, community leaders are calling for river protection. In each place, we will work with a broad coalition of local partners to lay the scientific groundwork, build public support, and conduct legal work necessary to achieve permanent protection. We will prioritize rivers for this project based on:

Existing biodiversity;

Importance of a river to food security and livelihoods of local populations;

Commitment of indigenous peoples to river conservation;

Threats from additional dams or infrastructure;

Feasibility of additional protections;

Potential to link future river conservation to existing protected systems.

International Rivers is submitting this concept in partnership with water protector organizations in each of these regions.  Partners include:

- Rivers without Boundaries (China, Mongolia, Russia)

- Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (Myanmar and Thailand)

- EcoPeace (Jordan, Israel, Palestine)

- Rios Vivos (Colombia)

Priority rivers for protection include:

- Nu/Salween River (China/Myanmar/Thailand)

- Amur/Heilongjiang River (Russia/China)

- Gongri/Manas River (Bhutan/India)

- Jordan River (Jordan/Israel/Palestine)

- Magdalena River (Colombia)

The Nu/Salween River

The Nu River is one of the last major free-flowing rivers in China. It is China’s richest area for biodiversity, supporting more than 6,000 plant species alone. It crosses into Myanmar, becoming the Salween River, and runs through remote and untouched teak forests. It flows through mountainous regions of Shan, Karenni and Karen States, through the Salween National Park to join Thailand. For the vast majority of its journey, no major human activities disrupt the Nu/Salween ecosystem. It supports a plethora of indigenous and ethnic minority communities who depend on the river for food and fresh water.

Originally, the Chinese government proposed a cascade of five dams on the Nu, but in an incredible early victory for the burgeoning Chinese environmental movement, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced, in 2004, suspension of all dams on the Nu. However, later administrations saw officials reveal plans to resume construction. Plans were halted once again last year by the Yunnan Provincial Government; and the Chinese government just released its latest Five-Year Energy Plan, which does not include plans to dam the Nu River. 

However, Thai, Chinese, and Myanmar companies are still working to build a cascade of 7 dams on the Salween River in Myanmar.  These dams are sited in traditional territories of ethnic minority peoples and in areas of active conflict.  Local partners in the conflict-ridden states have been working on community and conservation projects for years, within the context of ongoing repression and fear. Currently, a tenuous cease-fire is holding in the area. However, civil society groups are concerned that plans to build the Hat Gyi dam on the Salween River would fuel further conflict in Karen state. 

Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) has initiated the  ‘Salween Peace Park’ Project in Karen State to both protect free-flowing rivers and to encourage an emerging peace process.  KESAN, working in collaboration with the Karen National Union, is facilitating consultations throughout 2017 about the Peace Park in each of the 23 villages within the proposed Peace Park territory to ensure that local communities agree to the park.  

“If we can successfully establish this peace park, it will protect and guarantee land security in our district level. Since we will have a detail defined boundary, outsiders will not be able to exploit our resources. They will not be able to grab our land and exploit our natural resources. They wouldn’t be able to dam our rivers.” -- Saw Gay Htoo, a villager from Lu Thaw township and participant in the first consultation meeting, as reported by KESAN and Mongabay

International Rivers has developed good relationships with government officials and dam-builders in China; we have initiated a benchmarking methodology with some of the largest Chinese hydropower companies to assess their policy and project practice in environmental and social aspects. The project has encouraged dialogue around performance and gives an entry point for influencing operations within and outside China. Since portions of the Nu watershed are protected as part of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, we will work with scientists, environmentalists, and the Yunnan Government to move forward comprehensive protection for the Chinese portion of the river. Working with local partners, supporting community and civil society networks we have worked extensively in Myanmar and Thailand to build good relationships with local communities. We will leverage these relationships to work for protected areas all along the Nu/Salween that can conserve biodiversity, build peace, and support fishing communities and cultures. 

The proposed Peace Park is building a strong foundation of support, including with the ethnic armed groups and district officials accepting the concept proposed by KESAN. The initial focus is on building the community  and local governance support, gathering robust baseline data of minority community livelihoods and needs, documenting the habitats and biodiversity, and ultimately to build an awareness of the concepts of peace park across stakeholders. Local leadership and supporting traditional conflict resolution is key to success; working with elders groups and younger activists to raise awareness of  environmental issues, protected area methodolgies, and to document indigenous knowledge and practice. 

The Gongri/Manas River

Another priority river for protection, the Gongri/Manas, originates in Tibet’s Himalayas. For most of its length, it flows through the forests and mountains of Bhutan and India before coursing into the Brahmaputra, one of Asia’s major rivers, whose basin supports 625 million people. It exits to the sea in Bangladesh at the Bay of Bengal, where it nourishes the Bay’s deltas, which support approximately 31% of the world’s coastal fishermen, who produce more than seven percent of the world's total catch. They already face declines in the amount of fish and biodiversity, especially through loss of vulnerable and endangered species.

The Gongri/Manas River also supports other important endangered species including tigers, the greater one-horned rhino, pygmy hogs, the Bengal florican, and the black-necked crane, which is of great spiritual and cultural significance. Monpa Buddhists consider the crane the embodiment of the 6th Dalai Lama and thus consider the river sacred. Two hydropower projects – one in India, one in Bhutan – threaten this river’s ecosystems and species. The India project has been challenged by Buddhist activists at the National Green Tribunal, which has asked for new studies and public consultation. The Bhutan project has, for the moment, lost its financing.

Leading conservationists in Bhutan have called for one river in Bhutan to be protected in perpetuity as free-flowing to protect aquatic diversity, for future generations, to preserve the rights of nature, and to honor Bhutan's king.  In India, a precedent was recently established when courts ordered that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers be granted legal "personhood" rights.

"To dam every single one of our rivers is perilous! Doing so will leave us with no reference point to go back to - for study in aquatic biodiversity and other scientific studies. We must have at least one free flowing river - to serve as a conservatory for various known and unknown aquatic gene pool. We must, at any cost, leave one of our rivers free flowing in perpetuity." -- Yeshei Dorji, Bhutanese conservationist

We are proposing the Gongri/Manas river as a focus of an upcoming intergovernmental dialogue between India and Bhutan, planned for 2017. This dialogue, which International Rivers will facilitate, provides an unprecedented opportunity to secure long-term protection of the Gongri/Manas River, guaranteeing the free flow of water in a key watershed with enormous significance to millions in the region. 

The Magdalena River

Economically and ecologically, the Magdalena is Colombia’s major river, flowing 1000 miles from Andes to Caribbean; 30 million people live within its basin. Between the central and eastern Cordilleras, it is the source of the region’s rich natural diversity. Its central section is protective forest reserve. Yet the Government's master plan proposes 17 hydroelectric projects.

As the river flows from the Andes to the Caribbean, it is home to many diverse ecosystems including forest, mountains, valleys, wetlands and coastal waters. This river supports 2,735 species of animals, many of which are endemic to the region. This includes the Grey-legged Night Monkey (Aotus griseimembra) as well as many species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and fish. Over 120,000 inhabitants of the region that have built their lives around fishing and agriculture, the principal driving forces of the local economy. Fisheries generate 62 thousand million tons of fish annually, which are a main source of protein for many communities.

In 2015, thousands of Colombians joined actions to protect the Magdalena, one of the largest river basins in South America.  Community leaders are calling for protection of key areas of the Magdalena and its tributaries.  Just last month, communities organized a festival to protect the Samana River, a tributary to the Magdalena.  A report from the festival underscored the connection between peace and river conservation:

"Finally, on the bridge, an allegorical and emotional act is performed: several people located at both ends slowly approach until reaching the center between calls of peace. The symbolism was simple. Both shores of the Samaná River formerly hostile to the war, being one guerrilla and the other paramilitary, come together in an effort of reconciliation and defense of the territory, sealed with the hugs of the participants of both sides." -- Samana Fest:  A River of Stories

In February 2017, thanks to community mobilizations, the Municipal Councils of Timaná and Oporapa Huila protected their rivers from energy, mining, and hydrocarbon exploitation projects.  Community organizations now seek to expand these protections along the Magdalena, starting with other areas of Huila Department (Province).

International Rivers has started working with pro bono lawyers in Colombia to develop a legal framework for the permanent river protection in Colombia.

The Amur/Heilongjiang River

The Amur/Heilongjiang River is one of the world's longest free-flowing rivers, flowing for 2,800 kilometers from its headwaters in Mongolia and Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.  The Russia-China border extends along much of the river's length.  

The Amur basin is home to tremendous biodiversity with six different freshwater eco-regions, at least 6,000 species of vascular plants, 130 fish species, at least 600 bird species, about 200 mammal species. Among fish there are at least 10 salmonids, including the rare Siberian Taimen, as well as three species of sturgeon.  The Basin's global significance is also due to its large areas of wetlands, which serve as habitat for the diverse bird species, including several critically endangered cranes. Major bird migration flyways cross the region with stopover sites in wetlands.

Drastically different cultures, population density, mode of economic development, and water use in Russia, China, and Mongolia, make it very difficult to build cooperative mechanisms to manage and protect water resources and river ecosystems. The river basin management is fragmented, so there is little or no coordination between bodies managing water in different parts of the basin.

"At public hearings in the town of Mogocha on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, local people endorsed an ambitious plan to develop a nature reserve on 330 000 hectares.This protected area is designed to safeguard the Upper flow of the Amur River and valleys of its two principal sources: Shilka River and Argun River....Local people hope that establishment of the new nature reserve will protect the river valleys from logging and pulp-mill impacts and prevent construction of the hydropower dam." -- Rivers without Boundaries

Russia and China have each designated terrestrial protected areas scattered like islands along the Amur River and its primary tributaries.  Now, it's necessary to secure protection for the river itself by linking these protected areas through permanent protections for the waterway that connects them.  

The Jordan River

The Jordan River is a small river with global significance.  In addition to its major historical and religious significance, disputes over water use have also caused conflict between Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.  

The Jordan River Peace Park - a concrete first step towards rehabilitating the Jordan River - is an ecotourism and cultural heritage project along the border. A protected environmental park on both sides of the Jordan River will provide opportunities for the preservation of biodiversity, joint environmental management, collaborative research programs, cross-border environmental education, and expand economic opportunities for regional cooperation in ecotourism for the two countries.  Communities see the establishment of the future Jordan River Peace Park presents an important symbol for peace in the region.

"The respective mayors see the development of the peace park as a cooperative effort and as a centerpiece of peace building activities between their neighboring communities.  The River Jordan is today heavily polluted and has been turned into a backyard dumping site, causing destruction of the ecosystems that once thrived to the loss of local residents.  Today, mayors and citizens of the communities are determined to reverse the situation.  The mayors declare their intention that the Peace Park be the start of a larger rehabilitation project of the River Jordan, as a symbol for sustainable regional development." -- Memorandum of Understanding to create the Al Bakoora / Naharyim / Gesher Peace Park, signed by mayors of border communities in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.

Plans for the Peace Park include the re-flooding of the present day dry lake bed and creating a bird sanctuary; as well as establishing tourist opportunities through rehabilitating and rethinking existing infrastructure - for example turning a decommissioned power plant into a visitor centre. 

Plans for Protecting Free-Flowing Rivers

To achieve best results, we will adapt our strategy to the specific social, political, and economic contexts of each river. Since most of our staff and partners live in the regions where they work, they are well positioned to build and sustain relationships that will advance conservation specific to each country and watershed. Our strategy will be based on:

Preventing imminent threats from large infrastructure;

Sound scientific justification of the need to protect each river;

Legal analysis that demonstrates how to protect rivers from impoundment and diversion while ensuring traditional uses and community rights;

Building a large and diverse movement advocating for permanent river protection;

Communicating and advocating for permanent river protection to decision-makers.


Explain your idea

We aim to protect free-flowing rivers in transboundary and conflict or post-conflict zones. Competing uses of freshwater uses can cause conflict, especially between nation-states. For example, a country that chooses to dam a river to produce hydropower can cause food shortages, water shortages, and severe ecological damage to downstream communities. Community-led and cooperative management of rivers and freshwater, on the other hand, can reduce conflict and create common ground focused on the protection of free-flowing rivers. The vision of protecting rivers to prevent conflict is starting to take root. In Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, communities are working together to create the Jordan River Peace Park. In Myanmar, in a region beset by state conflict with ethnic minorities and threatened by the construction of large dams, the Karen People are leading efforts to create the Salween Peace Park. These efforts have been bolstered by a recent decision by the upstream Chinese government to not consider any dams in the near future on the Nu River, thus creating an opportunity to permanently protect, across political boundaries, one of Asia's largest last free-flowing rivers. To advance this challenge, a network of water protectors from around the world proposes to scale up efforts to protect free-flowing rivers in transboundary and conflict or post-conflict zones. We will focus on five rivers to test approaches, create precedents, and achieve measurable success to protect critical freshwater resources.

Who Benefits?

The primary beneficiaries are river-dependent communities who live along each of the rivers proposed for protection. Over 120,000 people live along the Magdalena River in Colombia, subsisting off of fishing and agriculture. The Nu/Salween watershed is home to some 7 million people from over a dozen ethnic groups. Each target river is home to important river-dependent communities. This idea will support these communities by creating community management opportunities and by protecting their fisheries, food sovereignty, and water access. Community access, control and use of resources within protected areas is a fundamental success indicator. Indigenous use and management of protected areas is gaining global recognition through successful partnership projects in Australia and Canada where traditional owners work with government to secure sustainable futures for their peoples and environments. Conservation protections must be linked to active and empowered local community control.

How is your idea unique?

This project brings international expertise in river conservation (through International Rivers) together with local leadership that has been spearheading initiatives to create permanent protections at a local or national level (EcoPeace, KESAN, Rivers without Boundaries, Rios Vivos). The project leverages this international and local expertise to increase the likelihood of success, to scale up the idea, and to achieve larger-scale impact. While some international, transboundary conservation approaches have been tested, these approaches have generally focused on terrestrial conservation areas, such as National Parks. This project focuses efforts on the truly shared resource of water that flows across borders. In bringing these initiatives together into one coordinated program we aim to leverage learning through exchange. Being part of a wider community helps stakeholders envision pathways through difficult, or seemingly 'wicked' problems of governance and management.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Tell us more about you

For 30 years, International Rivers has been at the heart of a global effort to protect river ecosystems and river-based communities. With staff in China, Thailand, India, South Africa, and Brazil, we are well-prepared to scale up efforts to achieve permanent river protections. In 2013, we received a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions in recognition of our expertise in “applying science, rigorous policy analysis, and strategic advocacy” to “defend rivers and human rights and promote better policies and investment standards with banks, governments, businesses, and international agencies.” With 25 dedicated professionals and a wide network of partners in civil society, academia, the media and other sectors, we are strategic and nimble. We adopt innovative techniques and take appropriate positions quickly without undue influence from powerful external interests. With our independence, we have a track record of shifting public debates and achieving significant conservation impact. International Rivers will work with a network of committed river conservation advocates around the world to implement river protections that reduce conflict. Partners include: Rivers without Boundaries (led by Eugene Simonov), a coalition of Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese organizations working to protect the Amur River. Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), an indigenous rights and conservation organization in Myanmar working to create a Karen-managed peace park on the Salween River. EcoPeace Middle East, an organization that has pioneered the creation of Peace Parks in the Jordan River valley that borders Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Rios Vivos, coordinated by Juan Pablo Soler, a social movement in Colombia dedicated to free-flowing rivers. All of these groups recently met at a river gathering in the Republic of Georgia, where they shared knowledge and experience about protecting free-flowing rivers in areas of conflict. The conversations at this meeting inspired this idea to coordinate and scale up efforts to protect rivers in conflict areas.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Melinda Kramer

Hey International Rivers team! Such a great and timely Idea, especially with several rivers now getting personhood recognition! Might you consider adding a bit at the very top of your Full Description that states quickly/clearly what your Idea is? Currently, the background information you begin with is incredibly informative and so useful, but it did take a bit of time to understand exactly what your idea was working towards (permanent protections for certain priority rivers). Also perhaps consider including in that very top summary of what this Idea is how exactly it addresses Peace and Planet -- it's not that the info isn't included already throughout your description, but this may help to make it very clear right from the get-go. Again, and as always, you are doing such inspiring work! Melinda (from Women's Earth Alliance, in Berkeley)

Photo of David

Melinda, great to hear from you and thanks for the very useful feedback! Sounds good, and we will work to make sure the idea is clear from the very beginning. Thanks again and will be very interested in your further thoughts and feedback! All the best, David

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